Apr 29, 2012

Special Education, Suspension, Criminalization of School, Dropout Rates, and Race

Image Credit/Flickr: soonerpa 

My brain has been abuzz with all kinds of things. Although I do not know the specific details of  my new job, I know a lot about the theoretical backing for programs like the one I'm going to work in. Here are the facts:

  • African-American students nationwide are labeled as having emotional/behavior disorders and/or learning disabilities and placed in special education programs more often than white students--even though the schools doing that labeling have fewer black students than white students. This is called disproportionate minority representation in Special Education.  (See this book and this study for specifics, or just Google the phrase "disproportionate African Americans in special education" to get over a million results.)
  • African-American students, specifically black males, are punished more often than white students--even in schools where there are fewer black students than white students.  This is called the disproportionate discipline of African-American students. The punishments often take the form of out-of-school suspensions or involve police. Out-of-school suspensions lead to students falling behind in schoolwork, increasing the achievement gap. Police involvement leads to the criminalization of school behavior, and more kids entering the juvenile justice system. (See this article with stats for the 20 biggest school districts in the nation, and this page with links to civil rights studies.)
  • The system of zero-tolerance for behavioral issues that is in place in many schools often calls for police involvement in schools. This is the criminalization of school behavior. When we allow behavior in school to be criminalized, we send children into the juvenile justice system. Once a child is in the system, it is extremely difficult for them to get out. This is called the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Since disproportionate numbers of African-American students are facing disciplinary action in schools, it follows that disproportionate numbers of African-American students are entering this pipeline, moving directly from school to prison. (Read the ACLU's fact sheet here and find a book from the Civil Rights Project here.)
  • High School Dropout Rates are terrible, especially among poor and minority students. Our nation's dropout rate in 2009 was 8.1%. The dropout rate for white students was 5.2%. For Black students it was 9.3% and for Hispanic students it was 17.6%--again, this is a disproportionate number of students of color. (See the National Center for Education Statistics fact sheet here.)
It all seems so dismal. Unsurmountable obstacles to face, especially when most school teachers and administrators nation-wide are white (Find information about the U.S. Department of Education's plan to increase teacher diversity here.) Without the experience of knowing what it is like to be on the receiving end of racially-motivated stereotypes and prejudices or having your own child face such injustices, it is hard for many white people to understand the enormity of these problems. Schools try to alleviate the problems by offering diversity training for teachers (this is now a huge industry in education, with workshops available every year--particularly around Martin Luther King Day.) But is offering diversity workshops to white teachers enough? 

I don't think so.

For me, the thing that irritates me most about education reform is the trickle down theory: if we focus on the administrators and teachers, things will get better for kids. Reformers all seem to start at the top, and then hope that changes eventually make their way to the kids. That trickle-down approach means that things take years to improve for kids. Districts have to search for the proper teacher training materials, schedule the workshops at least a year in advance to get school board approval, and then they have to assume that all teachers will buy-in to the training. Once the in-service or training occurs, teachers have to find value in the material presented in order to start the process of change. And if they find value, then they have to take things one step further and actually apply their learning to their classrooms. If we're honest about things, that doesn't happen very often. Teachers are stuck in the day-to-day, one minute at a time, running of their classrooms. It takes a lot of determination to step back from the minutiae of day-to-day classroom operations so that we can alter the way we do things. One student's behavior, or a group of students' resistance to something new, and the lack of time to properly plan things, makes it difficult to change.

Instead of focusing on teacher diversity training, I think we should be focusing on changing things immediately and drastically for students. Develop plans for students first, and then make sure teachers adjust. Grassroots education change is what will make things better for kids the fastest.

How do we do that?

Start with the kid.  When a behavior occurs, do not call the police. Talk to the kid. When a problem arises, do not instantly suspend a child---talk to him. Teach him. If behavioral expectations aren't being met, consider the fact that perhaps no one has ever specifically taught the kid to meet those expectations. We need to explicitly and directly teach kids how to interact; we can't just assume that they know better. We can't keep punishing kids for doing things they don't necessarily know are wrong. We are educators. We need to teach kids, not kick them out. We need to give students the skills to succeed in school, on the job, and in life by teaching them. That is the only way to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, to end the disproportionate suspensions/labels/dropouts and get kids connected to mainstream society. Research shows that if we can get kids connected to someone/something positive by age 25, their chances of being successful in life improve astronomically. Instead of planning new in-services to teach multicultural communication skills, let's plan a program to directly connect kids to a teacher or community member who can explicitly teach skills that will help them be successful.

And so...that's what's been on my brain lately.  I am finishing out this year in my little alternative education classroom and doing the things we've always done to finish the year, but I am also receiving contact from people in the job I've accepted for next year. I am excited to learn more about what that job entails because it really does seem like a vortex of swirling "rightness" is around me--this job is right for me... I feel it. I don't know what the day-to-day nitty gritty of the new job will bring, and I can't really know until I get there. Obviously, there will be many day-to day changes, including these:
  • 10 minute commute instead of 40+ minute commute
  • 100 teachers in the building instead of just 1 (me)
  • 1,400 students instead of 20-30
The level of student diversity will also be much different. The high school I am moving to is not as diverse as the elementary school my own children attend (that is 56% non-white), but at 30% non-white it is still more diverse than where I currently work--which is all white.

As I've said, I don't know the nitty-gritty daily-grind details of what my new job entails. But it is directly related to all of the above and involves intervening, problem-solving, and directly teaching kids. I am looking forward to being a part of a program that focuses on students, hoping that what they're taught raises them up without having to wait for change to trickle down.

Apr 21, 2012

Bittersweet Life Changes

Image Credit: Flickr/wirehead2501
One of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my classroom happened this week. I had to tell my students that I'm leaving next year.  I'm not sure I can even write about it yet, to be honest.  But here's the whole story of how it happened:

Just over three years ago I went back to school in order to become certified in Special Education. There was a need in my own classroom--students with disabilities just weren't being served very well. It was no one's fault, just a fact of life. I couldn't expect a special education teacher to leave their school building, drive between 5-20 miles from their own classroom, and serve the kids in my program. But I wanted those kids to have more/better help. So I went back to school. Besides going back to school for the kids, it was also a move to cover myself: for many years our enrollment was so low that I worried there wouldn't be enough students to sustain the program. I got pink slips every year for 11 years. I worried about paying bills and feeding my family. Special Education jobs are available in schools all across the country, and I thought that if I had my degree in Special Education I'd be able to get a job quickly if our program ever closed.

I completed all of my degree except the student teaching requirement. Because I have been the only teacher on site in our alternative program, I was not allowed to student teach in my own classroom. I needed to gain experience in a certified special education classroom. To do that, I'd have to find a substitute for my own classroom, which is not an easy task! I work with kids who have lots of difficulties in life, and sometimes they aren't friendly to substitute teachers.  A special education teacher in the traditional high school in our district was interested in alternative education and he agreed to switch places with me for 8 weeks. He could learn about alternative education while I finished my degree. It was a win-win as far as I could tell! But then things changed, and he took a job in our district's middle school. The role-swapping was off. I felt like all of my hard work in school was going to be for nothing.

I called the State Department of Education and every education university around to see if there was some way to student teach in my own classroom, but all they said was that if I wanted to student teach in my own classroom I'd have to quit my job and find a new one that was designated as special education. Right about that time an ad appeared for the school district where my children attend. One of our area high schools was hiring special education teachers. I got together my application materials, weighed the pros and cons, and decided.........not to apply. I love my job. I love the kids. I love the freedom I have to develop curriculum and build a community of learners. We grow together, learn together, and get to be a close-knit family. I didn't submit my application. That was May 23, 2011. I figured that I'd finish school someday...something would happen if it was meant to happen.

Well, something did happen. My boss from the community college that sponsors our program informed me that I could apply for a professional development grant, get a leave of absence, and finish my degree. He said that the college was willing to search for and hire a substitute for my classroom. I was going to be able to finish school!

While we searched for a substitute and I negotiated a reduction in pay/partial leave of absence, I continued commuting to work each day--40 miles there, 40 miles back. On one particularly snowy day, I carefully drove 30mph, taking a full 2-hours to drive to work; but I still skidded into the ditch. It was very scary! Thank goodness I was okay (another teacher stopped and picked me up--I will never forget it. Thanks Vicki\y!) But it really changed my joyful commute into a white-knuckled event.

On top of that, my oldest baby brought home his junior high registration information (*sob* junior high? where did the time go?) He informed me that they schedule things so that he can play all of the sports he likes: football, basketball and track! But all of their games and meets are right after school. I realized immediately that commuting 40 miles to get there would mean that I probably wouldn't see any of his games. It broke my heart. Soon after, some news stories played on TV predicting that gas prices will skyrocket this summer. My husband asked, "Will we really be able to afford your commute when gas goes up to $5/gallon?" He encouraged me to apply for  jobs closer to home. So I started to look at what was available. There were openings at both local high schools. I looked at their online application system and discovered that all of the materials I'd uploaded in May of 2011 were still there; all I had to do was click the "submit" button.

In a whirlwind of uncertainty, I clicked it. And then I realized what I'd done. Crazy. Unthinking. Impulsive! I hadn't even changed the date on my cover letter; it was still dated May 23, 2011! My sister and brother-in-law are both in the human resources field, and have told me time and time again that they weed out applicants by looking for little things like the incorrect date on a cover letter. I assumed that they wouldn't give me a second glance; but I was totally wrong. A couple of weeks later, my classroom aide called me to say that she'd just received a reference call: was I keeping a secret from her? My heart dropped. I didn't think they'd call! I explained to her that I'd applied because of gas prices, junior high sports, etc. but wasn't sure I wanted to give up what I have. She is an amazing person; she is my former student, who graduated from our alternative program, and then came back to work with me as a colleague. She gave me a wonderful reference and then worried about it being too good, if you know what I mean. After she got her call, I knew I had to warn my other references. I was shocked; the incorrect date didn't matter.

Sometimes, it just seems like things are meant to be. That everything happens for a reason.

For the next week or so, I felt like I was being stalked. All of my references got called, but I myself didn't get a call. I wondered if I would hear anything from the school that already knew a lot about me from the people I worked with. Finally, though, I did get a call: from a different school than the one that had been calling my references! They requested an interview and I scheduled it, because this school is literally five minutes from my house. Soon after, the school that had talked to my references also called for an interview. The same day I took my comprehensive exams, I had the first interview. Three days later, I had another one. I have to tell you, I hate job interviews. I get so anxious and nervous that I forget who I really am, and what I know. I had to do a lot of positive self-talk and relaxation exercises to prepare for these interviews. I told myself that I just needed to BE ME...and if it was meant to be, it would be. If they didn't like me after I'd been open, honest, and 100% myself, then it wasn't a good fit and I'd just stay in my alternative program. You know what? I did it! I was 100% myself in both interviews and was so proud of myself for not being a big bundle of nerves the whole time. The second interview really went well. I loved the interview team and the way they interacted with each other. Their questions for me were so thoughtful. After years of working with only one other person, it was interesting to think about being a part of a well-functioning team.

When the first post-interview call came, it was a test to see if I could really believe what I'd told myself. The first school said that although I'd done really, really well they were hiring someone else. To be honest, I was sooooo relieved. But at the same time, I felt the sting of rejection. I kept reminding myself that I did what I'd set out to do, and if they didn't want to hire me then it wasn't meant to be. Meanwhile, I kept waiting to hear from the other school--the one I'd really enjoyed interviewing at. I waited....and waited. Finally, I got a call--but it didn't really appease me in the least because it was really cryptic. They hadn't filled the position yet, but they didn't want to offer me the position yet either. There might be something they wanted to offer, but they weren't sure yet. They couldn't tell me anything else until later in the week. "Hang on," is what she said. So I was hanging.

Every day, my current principal would ask me if I'd heard anything. Every day I'd say, "Not yet..." Pins and needles, nerve-wracking, crazy unknowing, uncertainty-----> STRESS. It was a stressful 2 weeks before I heard anything. All that time I was going through an inner turmoil, weighing pros and cons. What if I stay? What if I go? If there is a job offer, what's it going to be for, anyway? I love what I do...will I love it there, too? So many questions.

Finally, right after I finished presenting at the IAAE State Conference, I received a job offer. All of my internal lists of pros and cons flashed by as the voice on the line said, "Do you need time to think about it?" and I realized that I'd thought about it enough: no more pink slips, no more white-knuckled winter driving, no more worries about the price of gas, and no more heartbreaking absences from my kids' after school events. All that soul-searching led to one possible answer: I accepted the job.

I am very, very sad to say goodbye to my current students. I still believe in each and every one of them and I want to see each of them walk across the stage at their graduation ceremonies. I will be available to them on Facebook, by cell phone, email, and will keep in touch just the same way I've kept in touch with almost all of my former students. I told them all of this on Monday in class, and I swear to you it was the hardest thing I've ever done as a teacher. I feel like I'm letting them down, but at the same time I know that I am doing what is right for my family.

I will continue to work with the same kinds of kids in my new position. I hope that they are as wonderful as the hundreds of kids I've taught over the past 14 years at New Directions. For sure, my new students will have a tough act to follow.

Some of the best #AltEd kids ever, at the state capitol in Des Moines

Apr 8, 2012

This Week's Challenge: #AltEd Conference Presentation

A news blog I write/edit for the IAAE as part of my duties as a board member.
Other duties include presenting at the annual conference.  

I finished comprehensive exams and moved on to the next professional challenge: preparing to present at the Iowa Association of Alternative Education's next state conference.  This will be the third year I've presented, and each time I do it gets a little easier to stand up in front of my peers; but it gets a little more intense to prepare.

I fully intended to write my usual post for today...but ran out of time because I've been working on two Google Presentations to use this week. I will be presenting two separate break-out sessions: one about Social Media in Education, and one about Blogging.  If you have time to look through my presentations and offer feedback, it would be much appreciated! My conference presentation skills are a work in progress...I can use all the help I can get.

To see my presentations, visit the Google Site I created for the conference  and click on either of the Subpages, "Beginner's Guide to Social Media for Educators"  or "Blogging 101."

Why these topics? Many of my colleagues in Alternative Education are very creative thinkers when it comes to differentiating instruction and finding new ways to motivate kids. They are passionate and caring people who spend a lot of time helping kids. As a result, many of them don't have much time to learn about new technology.  I'm hoping that my presentations will make it easier for them to sign up for Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites so that they can connect with each other and find new ways to reach out to their students.

I'll let you know how it goes next week....

Apr 1, 2012

Tweenage Choices/Consequences, Casting Stones & Trayvon

My son is officially a hormonal tweenager. He is a year away from having the official -teen at the end of his age, but he's definitely there, and I know it because of last week.

On Saturday at bedtime when I told him it was time to put on his head gear, he hated me. I could see it in his eyes. He gave me that look. When I ignored it, and kept insisting on the head gear, he cried.

On Sunday when his dad was cleaning up he found old pizza crusts under the love seat. He informed our son that he could no longer eat in our downstairs family room (aka "the man cave.") In that moment, he hated his dad. We could see it in his eyes. And he cried so hard that he threw up.

On Monday after school, he happily played basketball with his friends, mocked his little sisters and had a great day...until I asked him to stop mocking his little sisters. Then he hated me. I could see it in his eyes. But he didn't stop the teasing, so I had to pull the "wait 'til your dad gets home" card. When his dad got home, then he hated him, too. Of course, he cried (and lost his video-gaming privileges for the next day.)

On Tuesday, he came home from school and laid on the couch because he wasn't allowed to play any games. He sulked. Thinking he was sick, I asked him if he was okay. "No," was all he said. After some prodding, he finally let loose one detail, "Papi looks at me like he hates me."  (Hard not to smile at the irony here... really...)

I comforted and consoled him, but also explained that when I ask him to stop making fun of his sisters I expect him to stop. When he doesn't clean up after himself, he will lose some privileges.  I also explained that neither of us hate him; we're just trying to get him ready to be a responsible adult. He's probably going to alternate between hating me and hating his dad for the next 5 years or so; but that's just part of being a teenager. He looked at me and said, "I don't hate you. I just hate wearing head gear. I love you."

Awww....that melted my heart. (But not enough to give him back his gaming privileges.)

Kids, especially tweens and teens, make some really poor decisions. Their brains aren't fully developed, they make impulsive choices, and have that extra added element of peer pressure working against them. My son is just embarking on this journey of hard choices and harder consequences known as the teenage years. I hope we all make it through okay...but I worry. I've seen my students make a lot of bad choices. Some choices are much worse than others and can lead to life or death situations. Others aren't so serious. I told my son, "All kids make stupid decisions at some point; I just hope the ones you make don't hurt you or anyone else too badly. Try to stop and think before you do anything. Think about the possible consequences."

Here's a laundry list of common poor choices made by teens: stealing booze from a parent's liquor cabinet, driving without a license, driving while drunk, sneaking out at night for a date with a boy/girl, cheating on a test, procrastinating a homework assignment, shoplifting, drawing/writing on a wall, calling a parent a name, staying out past curfew, saying you'll be with one friend when you're really with another, smoking cigarettes, taking money from mom/dad's wallet without permission, paying for one movie at the theater but watching three, illegally downloading music/movies from the 'net, talking back to a parent/teacher, making fun of a peer/bullying just to look cool in front of "friends",  speeding or driving erratically...

That list could go on and on and on...there is really no limit to the number of bad choices teens can make. Is there any adult who didn't make at least one of those bad choices when they were a teen? Really?

I've been sickened to read stories about people trying to prove Trayvon Martin was a thug by hacking into his email account and looking at his school records; they are looking for evidence that he "deserved it."  Here's the deal: just like I told my son--EVERYONE makes bad decisions as a teenager. I did. I'm betting you did. I know my kids will. It's a fact of life. Imagine if your bad teen decision came back to haunt you as a reason you deserved to die.

Imagine it.

Perhaps you lied to your parents once about your whereabouts in high school--that makes you a thug who had it coming. Or you caved in to peer pressure and hid someone else's evidence because they were worried about getting caught. Now you're a no-goodnik who deserved to be shot.

I admit it; I can't let the Trayvon Martin story go. It rained a couple of times this week and I watched my son go out the door in a hoodie. It just came to me again...a boy who is not much older than him is now dead. Trayvon may have made some bad choices in his teen years. We all do. But that night in Sanford, FL he didn't deserve to die.

I am still worried about my son. He is going to, like every teen, make some bad choices. I have no trouble at all making him face the consequences of those choices. But he didn't choose to be born with brown skin. He shouldn't have to face consequences for that.


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